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By Elizabeth Wolfe
(CNN) -- Just weeks before stepping foot on Smith College's campus, Avery finally came to understand something that cast doubt on whether the small women's college in Northampton, Massachusetts, would be the perfect fit for the incoming first-year student after all.
Avery realized he is a transgender man. And Smith -- while it opens its doors to trans women and some nonbinary applicants -- does not accept admissions applications from trans men.
"I was petrified," said Avery, who is using only his first name because he is not out to his whole family. "What if people don't understand? What if I made a bad choice deciding where I wanted to go? I was just really scared that people wouldn't be accepting of trans people at Smith."
Despite Smith's admissions restrictions, college spokesperson Carolyn McDaniel told CNN: "Once admitted, every student has the full support of the college, and this includes trans men." Avery was able to begin the school year, even though he feared he may not be fully embraced by his peers.
Avery is among the trans and nonbinary students who do not identify as women and yet have been attending women's colleges for decades.
But as gender-nonconforming people have become increasingly more visible both in society and on campus, these institutions have been forced to grapple with what it means to be a women's college -- and who is welcome there.
Most recently, students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts passed a nonbinding referendum requesting that the college begin using gender-neutral language and that its admissions be opened to all trans and nonbinary prospective students. The college says it admits those "who consistently identify and live as women, including cis, trans and nonbinary students."
Their request was denied by administrators. Wellesley President Paula A. Johnson acknowledged the vote in a statement but said there is "no plan to revisit our mission as a women's college or our admissions policy" and the college "will continue to engage all students in the important work of building an inclusive academic community where everyone feels they belong."
"These conversations have been happening for decades," said Maggie Nanney, an independent scholar who studies trans students' experiences at gender-selective colleges. Nanney noted that scholars have identified trans alumni of women's colleges as early as the 1980s.
But it wasn't until 2013 -- when Smith College denied admission to Asian American trans woman Calliope Wong -- that a wave of on-campus activism and fraught conversations caused several women's colleges to reconsider their policies on trans and nonbinary prospective students, Nanney said. This included Smith, which adapted its policy to include trans women in 2015.
In the years since, almost all of the approximately 30 women's colleges in the United States have opened their admissions to trans women, though less than a third have adopted policies open to trans men, according to a tally by Nanney.
While the institutions still widely refer to themselves in official communications as "women's colleges," many students, staff members and alumni have voluntarily adopted the term "historically women's college" to reflect that their campuses have evolved to serve more gender-diverse communities, Nanney said.
"There's a lot of resistance, especially from leadership, to use the term 'historically women's college' because they think that connotes the idea that these colleges are no longer 'women's colleges,'" Nanney said.
The yearslong struggles over trans inclusion are often tense, as some students and alumni say they want their college policies to reflect the reality on campus -- where trans students are an important part of the community -- while some students, administrators and alumni argue the changes would negate the college's history and threaten its mission to serve women. Some opponents also argue admitting trans men would effectively make the college co-ed.
But as conservative groups and GOP lawmakers push a growing wave of anti-trans legislation aimed at limiting rights to gender expression and affirming health care, some trans students at women's colleges say their campus communities provide a critical safe haven as they increasingly fear for their safety and personal wellbeing.
CNN spoke to several trans and nonbinary students who attend women's colleges who shared their experiences and explained how they have found affirming communities on campus, even as some still struggle to feel fully accepted by some students and administrators.
Avery '25, Smith College
Avery realized he was trans at the end of a gap year he took before college -- and about a month before he was supposed to start his first semester at Smith. Withdrawing or transferring so close to move-in day seemed unthinkable, he says.
So he decided to keep his identity private when he first arrived on campus, waiting to see how he might be received and taking time to become more secure in his newfound self. Soon, he met several nonbinary people in his housing community and decided to come out.
"Everyone was just like, 'Oh my gosh! Congrats. Good for you for coming out. We support you here. You belong here.' Which was really, really nice," Avery said.
Though people who identify as men are not eligible to apply for admission to Smith, students who transition after matriculation are able to stay and complete their degree.
Avery is now a sophomore and has built a supportive community in his student-living house, where he often sits in the living room knitting Nordic-style sweaters and chatting with friends.
While he feels the students at Smith are overwhelmingly supportive, Avery still is misgendered often. And because Smith's admissions policy does not include trans men, he said, "It definitely makes me feel like I have to justify my existence on campus."
But he says he believes trans men would also benefit from an environment aimed at providing equal education to those who have been marginalized because of their gender.
"(Trans men) have had negative experiences with other people because of our gender just in the same way a lot of cis women have also faced discrimination because of their gender," he said. "We're not a big, scary threat taking away your women's colleges. We're just students and people who want to learn and want to be in a place that is safe for us."
Hunter '23, Wellesley College
Hunter already knew he was trans but still had not come out when he was recruited to Wellesley College as a student athlete. Though he had barely heard of the small Massachusetts school, a visit to its campus quickly made clear that it was the right place for him, he says.
"It seemed like an environment where everyone was trying to reach their goals in harmony rather than competitive, cutthroat. And above all else, it seemed like a place that I could be at and would feel safe," said Hunter, who asked that CNN use only his first name.
He now identifies as a trans man and contributes to the Wellesley Trans Archive, a student-run Tumblr page that documents stories of past and current trans students.
After the student referendum was rejected by administrators, Hunter says, he was "disheartened" by president Johnson's response, which he felt implied, "'It doesn't matter what's happening. I'm not going to listen to you.'"
"The administration at Wellesley, they're not nearly as forward thinking or as progressive or as open to change as the student population here is," he said. "It's the student community that has continued to lift me up and support me, and that has been so incredible beyond my wildest dreams."
As he prepares to graduate, the threat of transphobia and anti-trans policies around the country has been weighing on Hunter, he says.
"(Wellesley) feels like a protected space, though the administration isn't affirming. You know, I'm surrounded ... far and wide by people who embrace me and love me and accept me."
Kit Rapier '23, Agnes Scott College
Kit Rapier, a senior at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, said the large LGBTQ community on campus was a key reason they decided to attend.
"That was something I just really wanted to feel safe in, and I didn't think that I could get that with a traditional public university as much as a small liberal arts, historically women's college," Rapier said.
The college's admissions are open to prospective students of all genders except for cisgender men.
It was not until Rapier settled in at Agnes Scott that they came out as nonbinary and transmasculine -- meaning they aretrans and identify most with masculine gender identity and expression.
"I was in, finally, a safe space to realize that," they said.
"I never even thought of leaving Agnes, even once I didn't identify with womanhood," Rapier said. "Those spaces (women's colleges) are still important to trans people and always have been. They're just a safer space to be in, it feels like. Trans men and lesbians, I mean, there's a history of solidarity there."
As Rapier and their peers witness GOP-led efforts to limit trans rights, they are particularly concerned about the wave of laws banning gender-affirming care, especially for young trans people and children. And as a handful of states have also moved to restrict treatment at all ages, they also worry about being able to access reliable and supportive health care through adulthood.
On campus, however, the threats seem to have strengthened LGBTQ students' bonds, Rapier says.
"I think it's definitely bolstered community values here, especially within LGBT organizations," Rapier said. "We're sending out messages and holding spaces for people to talk and grieve."
Myles Walsh '25, Mount Holyoke College
Myles Walsh, a transmasculine, first-year student at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, says he was viciously bullied by men at his Maine high school when he came out as trans. Going to a women's college, he thought, would be "a more comfortable option."
"I wanted to just be known as Myles and be accepted," he said.
"I was going to have the opportunity to meet trans and nonbinary students who I could connect with and finally be with people who are like me, which was super exciting," Walsh said.
So he chose Mount Holyoke, which was one of the first women's colleges to open its admissions to all students except for cisgender men. It now describes itself as a "women's college that is gender-diverse."
"It is a lot more accepting" than his high school, Walsh said. But even in the more open-minded environment, Walsh sometimes feels his masculine gender expression makes him stick out and attracts uncomfortable attention.
"I feel like eyes are always looking at me, and when I speak in class -- like on the first day of classes -- people are like, 'Whoa, that sounds like a man's voice. What is he doing here?'" he said.
Walsh says he sometimes feels isolated when he hears other students talking about the way he dresses or his hobbies, which include making music to document his voice deepening while on testosterone. Even still, he says he has found support that he may never have gotten at a co-ed college.
"There are people who are really wanting to learn and are going through similar experiences who really are great to me," Walsh said. "And I'm so lucky for that. I don't think I would receive that at other schools as much as I do here."
Kay Miranda '23, Bryn Mawr College
Kay Miranda, a senior and neuroscience major at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, knew they were nonbinary before college. Once they got to campus, they were excited to see that some of their professors were trans or nonbinary and were relieved at the ease with which people accepted their identity.
"Having students ask me my pronouns as opposed to me having to advocate for it for myself was such a breath of fresh air. ... It just felt like it was like the same as asking your name," Miranda said.
The college says it admits trans and cis students who identify as women, nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth, "intersex individuals who do not identify as male" and "individuals assigned female at birth who have not taken medical or legal steps to identify as male."
Miranda found affirming groups of LGBTQ people of color on campus and have become more confident in their identity, Miranda says. But the national onslaught of anti-trans legislation still lives in the back of their mind.
"I feel like sometimes there's a cognitive dissonance with myself of like, I'm feeling great on campus and feeling great as a senior and feeling great as Kay. But the parts of me that I feel so confident and feel so loved for are topics of debate in the halls of Congress and in all of these different states," they said.
Miranda made sure to get their top surgery -- a gender-affirming procedure in which a person's breast or chest tissue is removed -- before graduating because they were confident their peers and professors would be supportive. They were also unsure if they'd be able to access affirming care and a safe community after graduating.
"I'm worried of never finding a career or a job or a home that I'll feel safe in," Miranda said.
Student support extends beyond admissions, scholar says
Though several women's colleges have adopted admissions policies welcoming trans and nonbinary people, Nanney -- the scholar on trans experiences at gender-selective colleges -- said such changes are only the first step toward welcoming such students on campus.
"I do not believe that these policies are the be all and end all towards trans inclusion and trans justice on campus. In many ways, they are just the way to get your foot in the door," she said.
On-campus support requires a holistic approach, she says, and includes resources such as widely available restroom and locker room spaces, access to affirming health care and counseling, and a way for students to easily change their name and pronouns in college systems.
Nanney pointed to Mount Holyoke as a leader in implementing trans support systems on campus, including a "chosen name policy" that allows students to easily designate which name and pronouns they would like to appear across the college's directories, email and other online systems. The college also offers a financial assistance fund for LGBTQ students who lose support from their families after coming out.
When colleges implement such support programs, Nanney says, it is almost always because students pushed for them, as the students at Wellesley have done with their referendum.
"It just absolutely amazes me and astonishes me to see what can happen from the ground up," she said. "Students (at Wellesley) are showing that this is the college that they strive to have -- that this is their vision of inclusion. And I think that's really powerful."
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